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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/29/2010

And now, a tragicomic conversation on 'differentiation'

By Valerie Strauss

Reaction to a video I posted this week showing two figures in a nonsensical conversation about “collaborative planning” and teaching was strong and sad. A reader, Wyrm1, echoed a number of comments and emails I received from teachers, saying: “Sadly, the video is funny because it is all too true in many school districts.”

If you didn't see it, take a look (it is below). My favorite dialogue from that video:

Female voice: I have a challenge. My students are not understanding verse structure.

Male voice: How do you know that they don’t understand? Where is your test data?

Female voice: I haven’t given the test yet but i know they don’t understand the material.

Male voice: Then how do you know they don’t understand?

Female voice: They told me.

Male voice: But if you don’t give the assessment how can you know where your students are?

Female voice: They told me they don’t understand what I am talking about. The students raised their hands said we do not understand verse structure. They also presented a notarized petition and held a press conference. They compared last night’s homework to translating the Bhagavad Gîtâ into Klingon from its native Sanskrit then translated a passage in front of me to show it is less difficult...

Male voice: But if you don’t give the assessment how can you know where your students are?

A reader who goes by the name of Mr. Teachbad offered another video, and, because I am a strong believer in laughing through the pain, I'm posting it below. Mr. Teacherbad, who maintains the often humorous Blog of Teacher Disgruntlement (warning: there is some colorful language on it) said that after he saw the first video, he, "like so many other teachers, laughed and cried at the same time."

Then he created his own video, this one a conversation in which a teacher expresses doubt about the power of "differentiation."



Here’s some of the amusing but all-too-realistic dialogue:

Male voice: Thanks everyone for coming to this required meeting on differentiation...

Female voice: You don’t have to thank me for coming to a meeting that was required.

Male voice: Thank you. Please sit with your small learning team cluster group and begin brainstorming wows and wonders you have had so far this year about differentiation.

Female voice: I wonder how I am supposed to differentiate for nine reading levels in my class.

Male voice: Do you have any wows?

Female voice: Wow. Could I talk to somebody else?

Male voice: Differentiation is not just a word. It is what keeps our lowest performing students on track and our highest performing students engaged.

Female voice: Seriously, could I talk to someone else who could get me out of this meeting? I have a lot of work to do. I am actually working on a lesson plan to differentiate for my lower-performing scholars. And I had to come here.....

Male voice: Because it is required....

Female voice: Some of my students cannot read at all. Some cannot spell their own names. Some can read and spell their names very well. Most are somewhere in the middle. I am having a hard time differentiating.

Male voice: Have you tried using a graphic organizer and positive reinforcement?

Female voice: Yes and sometimes that works but there are still many 18 year olds who just don't know how to read.

Male voice: Teachers need to do more to reach all students to ensure success and preparation for college. I will send you a website with resources and strategies....

Watch the rest, and laugh, and cry.

Here’s the original video I posted:


-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 29, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Hu?, Laugh and cry  | Tags:  collaboration, differentiation, education video, planning meeting, school reform, teacher collaboration, teachers, you tube  
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Next: What Rhee's successor should do first

Comments

Differentiation IS a bit much because there's too much emphasis on learning styles. If the three "styles" were inculcated into the hidden structure of the classroom they would be more effective and no one would know the difference, especially the students.

The real emphasis should instead be directed at the PACE of instruction for each student. Again, kids show up every year with different strengths and weaknesses as well as different levels of readiness and motivation. Attempts to teach them all the same lesson with any hopes of effectiveness and/or efficiency is a canard, a prevarication. It hasn't worked in the past and there's no evidence it's going to succeed for future populations either.

This video attempts to satirize a pedagogy that needs to be the primary strategy of teachers K-16 if we are ever to realize any degree of genuine education reform. But again, the emphasis needs to be on satisfying the different paces of learning of each student and NOT on their different questionable learning styles. THEN, and only then will teaching become a legitimate profession such as medicine, the law, etc.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 29, 2010 6:55 AM | Report abuse

phoss1
We meet again!

You said that differentiation is labor intensive because of the emphasis on learning styles? I'm sorry, but that is just NOT true.

You might be able to pull off differentiating the pace of instruction with elementary school students, but good luck pulling that off at the secondary level. Have you ever tried to do that? It is next to impossible to do correctly.

To suggest that this insane practice needs to become the standard K-16 lest the teaching profession remain illegitimate is ridiculous.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | October 29, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

The elephant in the room is that if differentiation is not an effective way to address the wide range of readiness levels in a classroom (and it is not), then we are left with two unpalatable options: group children by readiness, or teach to the middle/lower middle and let the rest of the students flounder. That's not to say that differentiation is a bad thing -- it's just that it can't substitute for creating a way to give each child access to the curriculum at the point where the child can benefit from all that is taught in her/his classroom, not just random bits taught on the fly.

Posted by: jane100000 | October 29, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

So, apparently all of the teachers who are able to differentiate instruction in their classrooms are doing the "impossible"? Maybe being able to teach to a variety of students is a mark of a "good" teacher and we should in fact be able to differentiate among "good" and "not so good" teachers. Maybe we should even be able to get rid of the "not so good" teachers who can't teach to a variety of students?

Seriously though, as with most things in life there are middle grounds. You really should not have a class with a mix of extremely high and extremely low performing students. Some form of ability grouping should occur so that the breadth and depth of the ability span in a classroom is "reasonable". But within that "reasonable" ability span if a teacher cannot easily and naturally differentiate their instruction to reach students with differing learning styles and abilities, then they should not be allowed to continue in the "profession".

Posted by: nhsd | October 29, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

SO DEAD ON! Differentiation has been a very recent topic on our MS yahoo group. When the school admin seems to want to have very mixed classes and we've been told that the "advanced" (that's the only class option) curriculum offers options for low, on grade and high abilities, we just shake our heads and know that the classroom is being set up for frustration for all. We're talking about a MS here that has kids who are reading below grade level, kids who are ready 4 or more years ahead of grade level and everything in between. How is 1 teacher suppose to be effectively covering a 6 year ability range? Even with tighter groups, differentiation is needed. When the ability range can be at least 6 years, it's an unfair situation for all. Differentiation works, but within reasonable groupings. LOVE the videos.

Posted by: valerie11 | October 29, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

phoss1 wrote:

"kids show up every year with different strengths and weaknesses as well as different levels of readiness and motivation. Attempts to teach them all the same lesson with any hopes of effectiveness and/or efficiency is a canard, a prevarication. It hasn't worked in the past and there's no evidence it's going to succeed for future populations either."

And yet, students keep showing up to college and university classrooms every semester to be instructed by professors in the exact manner you claim does not work.

So, a university degree is a "canard, a prevarication."

And, nhsd wrote: "if a teacher cannot easily and naturally differentiate their instruction to reach students with differing learning styles and abilities, then they should not be allowed to continue in the 'profession.'" Let us know when universities start handing out the pink slips to the professors who do not conform to your standards.

The point is: Life doesn't differentiate, students must learn to adapt. When was the last time anyone held a job that the boss said, "what can we do to accommodate your 'working style?'"

We (primary and secondary teachers) don't prepare our students for the type of instruction used by most professors at the university and then we (society) wonder why freshman college students are not successful or need remediation.

Posted by: demathis | October 29, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

"Seriously, could I talk to someone else who could get me out of this meeting? I have a lot of work to do. I am actually working on a lesson plan to differentiate for my lower-performing scholars. And I had to come here....."
____________________

This particular comment, but also everything else in the dialogue, is almost verbatim to what I experienced in my last school during a "Workshop on Differentiation".

I considered myself a master of running 9-ring circuses through the many years of teaching to students of many different learning styles, but the workshop took the cake. For one thing, it was conducted largely by very young, not very experienced teachers that had obviously been primed with a few basic techniques and were thrilled to be 'leaders'....(out of the hard-working classroom). The second issue (among many others)I had was the "Oh, this isn't so hard - if you just have the right attitude, learn our tricks and be sensitive to children's needs, you can do this too."

Well, ANY good teaching is not easy. And learning a few tricks and changing your attitude alone isn't going to make you a miracle worker in a classroom.

I finally walked out of the workshop to go tend to my own 'differentiated' lessons that I needed to present the next day.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 29, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

"But again, the emphasis needs to be on satisfying the different paces of learning of each student and NOT on their different questionable learning styles. "

We have a perfectly sound method of satisfying the different paces of learning of each student.

It's called "tracking". Progressives declare it The Great Evil. So does Jay Mathews, in fact, since his AP for all is the opposite of tracking or ability grouping.

In fact, all research shows that the most effective way to teach students is to group them by ability and put them in different classrooms.

" You really should not have a class with a mix of extremely high and extremely low performing students. "

Except, you know, you do. So stop giving yourself credit for "differentiating" when you apparently aren't doing anything more than handling kids from 80-100 percentiles.

I actually do differentiate with high school students who run the gamut from "can't do fractions and don't know 3x6" to "do challenge problems from the handout with minimal assistance". In algebra. It's not fun. And if an administrator came into my room, I'd be criticized for the chaotic conditions, because a 20-30% of the kids don't want to work at all, and if I maintain perfect control of the classrooms, I wouldn't be able to differentiate.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 29, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

AJ and other doubters, I did it for 33 years and it works. Sorry. You have to be organized and a good time manager. It can be done at any grade in any subject.

Secondary people want to hear nothing of it. They're content with their different tracks for college prep, advanced placement, etc.

College level instructors off course believe they're above the fray as well. How about a college freshman writing class of twenty kids. They arrive from twenty different secondary schools, some from different states, and some even from different countries. You, the instructor, are going to tell me they're all on the same level academically. Again, they all have different strengths and weaknesses. And you're going to put them all through the same lesson three times a week for a semester? That's convenient for you but you're not even close to meeting the needs of the twenty different kids in this class.

I'll repeat; teaching is never going to be recognized as truly professional until we begin to satisfy the different paces of learning for each student. THEN, and only then will teaching become a legitimate profession such as medicine, the law, etc.

If medical doctors or attorneys attempted to treat their clientele as batches the way teachers do, they'd be out of business by the end of the month.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 29, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

I think the issue raised by these films is not whether differentiation works in the classroom and is effective to some extent, rather it is whether you can "script" its implementation so you can train inexperienced people to use it, essentially "on a dime" without the long arduous process that accomplished teachers like several of the folk commenting here obviously have acquired through years of experience. The real issue is not differentiation but how teachers are trained and how they improve their practice.
Obviously if the "silver bullet" of the month requires years to develop, that blows the whole concept out of the water that we don't need experienced teachers to improve instruction. The corporate approach of reprogramming the machines for the new assembly line is a good metaphor to use here. Of course we are dealing with children and their teachers not machines but the corporate interests don't differentiate. ;-).

Posted by: kmlisle | October 29, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Differentiation is great when done well. But, you are essentially writing different lesson plans for each class. I think this can work with a curriculum that is already planned out that includes materials that are already ready to use.
If you are going to differentiate for students for every single lesson and you are teaching a subject area without a fully written curriculum or book to follow, this is next to impossible.
Only teachers who have taught the same thing for years will be able to do it, if they add to their plans year after year.
I am talking about "real" differentiation.
It works great, but is time consuming. I mean all your time could go into this, and you would be left with no time to check papers.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 29, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

I think the term "differentiation" is often used by people who actually don't do it.

They call writing the notes on the board "differentiation" when that is actually just good teaching.

I have noticed that administrators can't tell the difference between real differentiation, which takes hours, and fake differentiation, which is just labeling an old practice "differentiating".

People who aren't teachers have no idea about the amount of planning it takes to keep kids learning. Planning includes differentiating. Teachers need actual,quality time to plan, not nonsense meetings that take away from real instructional planning. Why is that so hard to get?

Posted by: celestun100 | October 29, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

This reminds me of Jay Mathews' posting of one high school teacher's IMPACT evaluation. The teacher was marked down for not meeting the "learning styles" of the students.
The teacher then asked the master educator to match the students to their learning styles.
Of course, the ME couldn't.

Posted by: edlharris | October 29, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

"If medical doctors or attorneys attempted to treat their clientele as batches the way teachers do, they'd be out of business by the end of the month."

Do medical doctors or attorneys see 20-30+ patients/clients simultaneously, in one big room? No, they meet with them individually, one-at-a-time, while giving them undivided, individualized attention (and charging a heap while they're at it). If you are using them for comparison, they are more similar to one-on-one tutors than "factory-model" classroom teachers.

Posted by: Incidentally | October 30, 2010 1:29 AM | Report abuse

As usual, so many scorn and ridicule what needs to be done to make our schools and our teaching effective. You don't have to be a magician to pull it off, either. You do have to believe addressing each child's learning pace would be an improvement over what most do now.

One lesson for the entire class? Does anyone honestly believe this is the best we can do? If you do, our schools stand no chance of improving.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 30, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

demathis, the universities and the elementary and secondary schools do not have the same purporses.

First, el-hi is supposed to teach students learning skills and basic material so the universities can teach the subject.

Second, the universities DO differentiate.
The student who leaps out of bed bright and early can take early classes, while the night owl can take classes later in the day, stay up until 4 a.m., and then sleep till noon. And it is often possible to choose a class section based on the student's compatibility with a professor's style or to take an independent study class. There is also some room within sections: In a history class, when I wrote a standard term paper, another student gave a talk on how music and history interacted during the period, complete with performances.

Third, colleges recognize that students may want different results from the class. Some non-majors just want to get a basic knowledge of the subject or just want the credit to apply to the degree, while the majors want to know everything. Some majors may be looking at the money they can make in the field, while others have trouble believing they can make money at anything that is so much fun. Some universities offer more practical courses for the non-major, and the professors leave it to the student to decide how much time to spend on each subject. In high school, I often had teachers express scorn for those of us who didn't consider each subject the most important in the world, and it was assumed we would all put in as much time as necessary to get A's.

Thus, differentiation is done in colleges.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 1, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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